Monday, April 4, 2016

Sleepy Marliana comes alive with sagra in honor of chestnut flour treat

About 20 minutes from Montecatini and Pescia, up in the foothills of the Alpi Apuane, lies the little village of Marliana. On most days, it is quiet, with few people on the sidewalks or the piazzas. But if you visit on a day when the local people hold a sagra, you’ll see an entirely different version of Marliana.

Marliana viewed from the street above
Necci batter
Yesterday, we were drawn by an poster advertising the 53th annual Sagra di Frittelle Dolci. A sagra is a local fair, usually a celebration of a local food or a raw ingredient, and there is a sagra somewhere for every traditional Italian food. This one featured a fried dessert called necci, made with chestnut flour.

“Attending a sagra is a way to get a taste of Italian country life and food culture and get away from tourist crowds,” writes Martha Bakerjian, an Italy travel expert for “You order food to be cooked by locals with a passion for the local cuisine, then sit at communal tables with other locals to eat. Eating at a sagra is usually inexpensive as well.”
Adding chestnut wood to the fire
Pouring in the oil
Netting the necci
Chestnuts were once vital for the survival of every family in the Tuscan hills. So important was the chestnut that it was known as the “bread tree” and its fruits “tree bread.” The nuts were collected, dried and ground into flour to make bread and many essential meals.

The sagra was scheduled to start at 3 p.m., but we arrived in town around noon and sat at an outside table in the Piazza del Popolo, where we ate a long, slow lunch at the local restaurant. In so doing, we were able to see the local families involved in setting up the central food booth and the huge kettle used for frying the necci. I wandered into the enclosed area several times to observe the preparations up close and talk to some of the men from the town. People-watching is one of our favorite activities in Italy.
A neccio, with a few bites already taken.

Pablo Luisi, who said his family has lived in Marliana for at least 300 years, told me that the sagra would probably lose money, but the town had a second one in the summer that would attract more people and thus pay the expenses for the spring sagra. It was a tradition important to the long-time residents of the city and a way to honor the memory of bygone times, when chestnut flour was “the only thing available.”

The kettle, filled with palm oil, is heated by a wood fire, fueled, of course, by chestnut branches, and the heat is trapped by a curtain of branches, leaves and sod over which the men periodically pour water to prevent the curtain from catching fire. The batter is made only with water, chestnut flour and a little salt, and it is formed into pancakes which are then deep-fried in the batter and dipped out with a special tool. In smaller-scale productions, necci are fried in pans the same way we make pancakes. Then they are rolled up like crepes and filled with ricotta or Nutella. I choose ricotta for my filling, considering it to be more authentic in holding with past traditions.

And are they delicious? No, not really. Maybe if they added sugar and chocolate they would be more appealing, but with the creamy ricotta filling, I can see why they would have been regarded as a treat for people on limited diets, and I’m certain that they are healthier than the sweet desserts we typically eat today.

Not long after the first neccio came out of the kettle, a band from Versiglia made up of veterans of the alpini—a special alpine unit of the Italian army—treated us to a few songs in the piazza. Then they headed a parade that looped through the town and consisted first of the band, then of alpini veterans from other nearby towns, then local dignitaries such as the town’s mayor, and lastly the town’s citizens and other fair-goers such as ourselves.

Alpini playing in the parade.
The procession stopped in front of a war monument while the band played another patriotic song, and the mayor and a couple of alpini members gave short speeches. If this had been a larger town or a more elaborate sagra, the festivities probably would have continued into the night and included a communal meal. The streets also would have been lined with booths selling other traditional food, as well as jewelry, clothing and knick-knacks. The Marliana sagra had only a half dozen other booths. We left after the speeches, thinking that we had experienced the main events and had tasted part of the true flavor of life in this beautiful village.

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